Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 74 / JULY 1986 / PAGE 105

Telecomputing Today

Arlan R. Levitan

Electronic Bulletin Boards: A Retrospective

Bulletin boards have been with us in one form or another for hundreds of years and will likely stay with us well into the future. Why? What's so special about bulletin boards, electronic or otherwise?

It's difficult to pinpoint when the first bulletin board appeared. Perhaps cave paintings were primitive bulletin boards. In the modern sense of a community communications media, the earliest bulletin board may have been the medieval practice of posting royal proclamations in the center of commerce, the town square.

The traditional bulletin board, with a wide variety of messages tacked to a freely accessible surface, abounds in our supermarkets, factories, offices, schools, laundromats, community centers, and city halls. These bulletin boards are more than just a way to give away kittens or sell tires. They make it possible for people with a message to reach out to the community as a whole.

Electronic Thumbtacks

The thousands of computer-based bulletin board systems (BBSs) which are online today offer the traditional message posting and a great deal more. Imagine trying to maintain a series of communications with other people using a regular bulletin board at a supermarket. Driving to the store every time you want to leave or read a message makes extended communication via corkboard and notecard extremely inconvenient. Even if you make the trip regularly, a less than careful search of the posted messages may miss the very reply that was sought.

The fact that a BBS can be accessed remotely, without leaving one's home, makes an ongoing dialog between many parties a simple matter. A computer dedicated to running the BBS manages the messages; in addition to numbering and indexing the messages, it also automatically notifies its many users of messages intended specifically for them.

The first BBS was born of necessity in 1978. Microcomputers were just getting off the ground, and the first micronauts were few and far between. The four major enclaves of personal computing were located in California, Illinois, Texas, and Massachusetts. Although the computer clubs in these areas exchanged newsletters regularly, there was a decided lack of spontaneous interaction between the major groups and even within the groups themselves.

Ward Christensen and Randy Suess, both members of the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist Exchange (CACHE), came up with the answer. They developed a program to run on a computer that was equipped with a modem hooked up to a phone line. The program turned the computer into an automated message system. Callers to the Computerized Bulletin Board System (or CBBS, as its originators referred to it) could leave and retrieve messages at any time of day. The CBBS was a huge success, and other clubs began pressing personal computers into service as bulletin boards.

The Spread Of BBSs

CBBS was not a universal program. It was written for computers which used the CP/M operating system (Control Program for Microcomputers). Christensen and Suess wrote a widely publicized article describing the program and the structure of their system as it appeared to the person calling into the CBBS. Realizing that similar programs would ould be written for other types of computers, they proposed that the functions and commands used by the CBBS be standardized for all BBSs. This would make it unnecessary for people to learn a whole new set of commands for each type of board they accessed.

Sure enough, BBS software for other popular systems soon followed. Craig Vaughn and Bill Blue created a program for Apple II computers called the People's Message System (PMS). Close on their heels was Bill Abney, who produced Forum 80 for the Radio Shack TRS-80, and Tom Giese, father of the Atari Message & Information System (AMIS) for the Atari 400 and 800. Late in 1982, the first version of the Remote Bulletin Board System (RBBS) for the IBM was written by D. Thomas Mack and Jon Martin.

Aside from a message exchange, most BBSs offer a selection of public domain programs and other types of files. By using terminal software capable of receiving files via modem from a remote computer, callers can transfer (download) copies of these files from the BBS to their own machines.

Most of the free software available from BBSs consists of programs that computer enthusiasts like yourself have written and wish to share with other people. A plethora of games, word processors, spreadsheets, database managers, and terminal programs are available for the price of a phone call. Whatever your needs, you can acquire a respectable library of almost-free software that will handle all but the most demanding tasks.

Next Month: Current Trends in Bulletin Board Systems.